Does Your School Have a Freshman Year Crisis?

SOS_shutterstock_231722740In a recent article that appeared on the NACUBO website entitled Bridging the Learning Divide, Earla J. Jones interviewed “social entrepreneur, youth advocate, and author Wes Moore.”

Mr. Moore made many interesting points in the interview, but one statement he made got us thinking…

  “…in many ways, colleges don’t have a college completion crisis.  What they have is a college freshmen-year crisis.”1

In other words it’s not about getting students; it’s about keeping them in that critical first year.

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that freshman year presents a major challenge for even the brightest students. The start of college life can be as challenging as it is exciting. This is particularly true when we think of the traditional student away from home and family for the first time. Of course, as most of us know, that traditional student is no longer the norm. With so much focus on completion rates, Mr. Moore makes a very good point. While it is difficult to find an exact figure, the estimated percentage of students who drop out of college in their freshman year is roughly 35%.2 Percentages vary from one school to another, but there can be no question that helping students succeed in year one will help raise overall completion rates.

Why the High Drop Out Rates?School_Drop_Out_shutterstock_163912004

While there are, no doubt, students who have difficulty adjusting to college or simply fail to perform, it’s safe to say that financial stress is the primary reason students drop out in their first year. According to Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research group, “most dropouts leave college because they have trouble going to school while working to support themselves.” The Public Agenda study showed that with a margin of error of 5%3 plus or minus, nearly six in ten freshmen dropped out because they received no tuition assistance from parents. This is in sharp contrast to data suggesting that more than six in ten students who graduate college do so in part because they receive tuition assistance from their parents.

Other reasons that students leave school include difficulty with time management and unrealistic academic expectations. There appears to be a growing belief among experts that more students would benefit from a gap year. A year off following high school would allow students time to mature and gets a taste of the real world while better preparing them to cope with both the academic and social challenges of college.

What can be Done?

Problem-Solution_shutterstock_273996404The answer isn’t simple, and it won’t be the same for every school. In most cases, cutting the cost of tuition, fees and textbooks would go a long way to alleviating financial stress. Other suggested solutions include allowing part-time students to qualify for more financial assistance, offering courses at more convenient times, and providing childcare for working students with children. Many experts suggest enlisting peer support to provide a network students can turn to for emotional as well as academic support.

Clearly, for completion rates to rise on average something must be done to alleviate the financial stress that so many middle and low income students are feeling. Getting them through that crucial first year could make all the difference. Many schools are doing in-depth studies to find out the common factors for students who leave after or during their freshman year, vs. those who continue on to graduation, and are coming up with plans based on that data to increase retention rates at their school.

Here are some additional resources you can review regarding increasing retention rates at higher education institutions.  

Five data informed steps for optimizing college student retention

Video: How colleges and universities can increase their retention rates

University of CO Boulder works to increase freshman retention rate

Strategies to improve student retention, success



1Bridging the Learning Divide” by Earla J. Jones

2Why do Students Drop Out of College? written by: ccrzadkiewicz/edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom/updated: 2/8/2012

3With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them” Research by Public Agenda, Prepared for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation



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